Rape Culture in British Universities

A great article written in the Guardian entitled "Ingrained sexism and lad banter: Why rape culture is still alive at British universities" by Radhika Sanghani. 

At EHV, we recognise the recent improvements made by university campuses directly tackling and creating conversations about rape culture. Clearly however, there is still much more to be done. What this article tells us is that attitudes are already engrained in adolescents in this environment. It is evident that education must begin at a younger age to prevent this culture from thriving. 

Read the article and let us know your thoughts. 

‘Don’t worry darling. It’s rape.’ These words were allegedly spoken by Louis Richardson, the former secretary of Durham Union Society’s debating club, who has been accused of raping and sexually assaulting two students.

His alleged rape victim told a court that he pushed her against a wall and tried to kiss her, before making the ‘rape joke’ when she said she didn’t want to. She said he then raped her at a later date, when she was too drunk to consent.

Richardson, 21, is charged with raping and sexually assaulting her, as well as sexually assaulting another woman twice. He has denied all four charges and his trial, which began this week at Durham Crown Court, continues.

The facts remain in dispute - and are for the jury to decide on - but the case does bring up the recurring issue of rape culture on British university campuses.

Back in 2010, a study by the National Union of Students found that one in seven women experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student. The world was, quite rightly, shocked and the topic of sexual harassment and assault on campuses hit the mainstream.

Since then many more studies have proved that rape culture is alive  and well on many uni campuses. I've written articles, on numerous occasions, exposing uncomfortable truths at prestigious British universities.

But, over the last couple of years, dozens of consent classes and workshops have sprung up around the UK.

Oxford and Cambridge became the first universities to run compulsory consent classes for undergraduates in 2014; in 2015 freshers at Bristol were given a consent quiz when they arrived; and independent organisations, such as the Good Lad Workshop, have grown - holding 150 workshops in 2014.

Has rape culture diminished?

There’s definitely a greater sense of awareness around campus rape culture and the rising number of consent classes is clearly a positive step.

But has anything actually changed? Have these workshops led to safer universities for women, or is this a case of too much talk and not enough action?

"There’s a bit of a postcode lottery if you end up at a university that does a lot of this or absolutely nothing.” Nicole Westmarland

“There’s way more awareness, a lot more people are engaging pro-actively and productively with the issue,” says Dave Llewellyn, founder of the Good Lad Workshop. “But we shouldn’t we resting on our laurels thinking the issue is over. There’s still a lot more to do.”

Statistics suggest just that. A 2015 Telegraph study  - one of the most recent to look at sexual harassment at universities - found one in three UK female students have been victims of sexual assault or unwanted advances, with one per cent of all students saying they had been raped while at university.

Professor Nicole Westmarland, co-director of Durham University's Centre for Research into Violence, thinks the biggest problem with the current drive towards awareness-raising and consent classes is a lack of cohesion:

“It’s not being done at the moment in a strategic way. It’s universities picking and choosing, and there’s a bit of a postcode lottery if you end up at a university that does a lot of this or absolutely nothing.”

Natalie James, women’s officer at UCLU (the University College London Union), agrees: “It depends what uni you go to. In London universities there’s a lot of activism around this but that’s not always the case.”

While some universities have publically spoken out about their efforts, others have been criticised for their silence over handling rape complaints.

One of the biggest criticisms students have had is the way that sexual assault victims are treated by universities. Eleanor Muffitt, who was sexually assaulted as a student, previously told the Telegraph: “Staff at the University of Manchester refused to deal with my case unless I went to the police, and rejected my pleas to find out if my assailant was still at the university. Their poor handling of my case worsened my post-traumatic stress disorder and left me suicidal; eventually I dropped out, which I know I wouldn't have done if I had been properly supported.”

Like her, other students who have reported rapes by other students have found that little action has been taken by their uni – to the point where they still have to live in the same halls of residence as their alleged attacker or attend the same tutorials.

“I think universities want to be sympathetic and take action in theory, but in practice they often don’t know what to do especially if both the complainant and alleged perpetrator are students,” explains Westmarland.

“They don’t know what to do, so they often don’t take bold enough action. That inaction is felt by students as not taking sexual assault seriously, not believing them and not keeping them safe.”

Lad banter and rape jokes

She thinks the next step is for universities to implement policies on how to handle such situations.

But this isn’t the only issue with rape culture on campuses. Almost every student I speak to tells me that while there may be fewer overt examples of sexism and inappropriate sexual harassment now - such as humiliating and sexual society initiation ceremonies - insidious versions of 'rape banter' still exist.

"Rape jokes still take place, but instead of people making them in person, they’ve now moved online."

“I think the casual everyday sexism is still very prevalent,” says James. “There’s a lot of laddish banter about picking up freshers because they’re young and easier to take home. You still have club nights with names like ‘f*** a fresher’. I think people still don’t realise how harmful that can be.”

She tells me that the most common examples are men unknowingly perpetuating sexual harassment by persistently hitting on women who aren’t interested, or making them uncomfortable with repeated compliments and comments on their appearance.

Women have spoken to her about drinking too much on nights out and finding fellow students groping them or trying to take them home. Rape jokes still take place, but instead of people making them in person, they’ve now moved online.

“Students find and share them online from websites or social media,” explains James. “There are still ‘lad’ websites that do this and you get Facebook groups like ‘Spotted at the library’ where people write comments like, ‘to the sexy brunette at the desk across from me.’”

What's the solution?

This sort of ingrained sexism is generally accepted as the norm by students. Though it isn’t always harmful in itself, it adds to a campus culture where sexual harassment, unwanted advances – and even sexual assault – are increasingly normalised.

Universities still have a huge part to play in combatting this culture, and creating a safe space for students to report assaults and harassment. But the answer to ending sexism lies with the students themselves.

Male and female students need to be able to call out rape jokes, ‘banter’ and inappropriate behaviour – the problem is that they don’t always feel able to do so.

“Women are dismissed when they say they don’t like being touched or hearing rape jokes,” says James. “There are a lot of people on board with saying serious sexual harassment is bad, but there’s a lot of resistance when it comes to challenging the smaller things.”

Llewellyn says male students can feel the same way: “I think the real issue for the majority of guys is the subtle sexism and jokes. They don’t feel equipped to challenge them because it’s not cool or whatever. Guys think ‘it’s not my job, I’m not a rapist’ - but they can do a huge amount by having these conversations and challenging those jokes when they hear them.”

It brings to mind the recent case of student George Lawlor being trolled online for saying he didn’t want to attend consent classes at the University of Warwick because he ‘wasn’t a rapist’. His argument was that he wasn’t guilty of sexual harassment, so hew shouldn't have to sit through a lecture. 

But, as Llewellyn points out, consent classes don’t just help deter potential perpetrators – they spread awareness and encourage all students to challenge the rape culture around them. Only when every part of that culture is recognised and defied will it cease it exist.